Every year, as a child, I would look forward with excitement to December 7th. On that day we would gather old newspapers, magazines and cardboard boxes that we had been collecting in the garage for months and make a big pile on the street next to the curve. We would wait for my father to come home from work and go out to buy a bright red devil piñata, cuetes and ametralladoras (firecrackers and long strings of firecrackers 6 or 8 feet long) from one of the street vendors that had set up wooden stands on Avenida de las Americas and all around the city.
We would then come home and put the devil at the top of the pile of trash, get out the garden hose and an antique hay fork that belonged to my grandfather and wait for 6pm to arrive. As we stood on the sidewalk and looked down and up the street we could see many families gathered outside in front of their piles of trash, some with devils some without.
At six everyone would light up their pile. We would watch as the devil piñata caught fire, sometimes we would strategically place some firecrackers inside of it other times we would just throw firecrackers into the huge bone fire and watched as garbage and devil where consumed by the flames. In December nights are starting to get chilly in Guatemala and the whole family would gather together on the sidewalk, one of us venturing closer to the big fire to throw firecrackers or use the heavy pitch fork to push the trash together into the center of the fire.
Every year we tried to make the pile bigger and it had become somewhat of a competition. We wanted to have the biggest fire on the block and some years my mom would even buy two or three hay bales to add to our pile if we didn’t have enough trash. As the years went by we had our share of what I then considered exciting memories and now look back on as pretty scary situations that could have gone bad. One year we made the fire too close to a tree and the tree caught fire. In Guatemala firemen are only called for life or death emergencies and a tree on fire did not qualify so we quickly got the garden hose and my parents put out the fire while we ran around excitedly screaming and pointing a the poor tree. After that we started making the fire in front of the garage and away from the trees and ever since that day the garden hose was always ready in case of emergencies. Did I mention that my parents would sometimes pour a little gasoline on the pile to get the fire started!?
A few days before December 7th stands and kiosks selling devils and fireworks would appear like magic on every corner of main streets and avenues around the city. The devils of all sizes ranging from one foot to 12 made of paper mache and chicken wire haging and waiting to be bought and burned. After La Quema del Diablo the stands would remain on the streets until New Year, the devils replaced by more fireworks and sometimes holiday wreaths and other Christmas decorations. Most of these vendors came from small towns or from the poor and marginal areas of the city and they turned these makeshift wooden stands into their homes, sometimes bringing along their families, children and all. They would spend the entire holiday season living on the streets, sleeping surrounded by fireworks. Every year there would be accidents, someone would throw a cigarret butt and the fireworks would quickly catch fire, one little shop setting a row of 10 or 15 similar shops on fire and some of these vendors loosing their lives.
After most of the garbage had burned we would put out the fire with the hose. By then the entire city was filled with smoke and the smell of burning trash and powder so we would go inside and drink ponche and have dinner.
Growing up I never gave this rather strange tradition much thought, for me it simply marked the beginning of the holiday celebrations with families gathering around a big fire and fireworks and firecrackers. In Guatemala we light up fireworks and firecrackers during most holidays and they are part of many traditions including Christmas.
THE MEANING BEHIND THE TRADITION OF LA QUEMA DEL DIABLO
The tradition of burning the devil began in colonial times. According to legend in anticipation of the feast of the Immaculate Conception, the patron of Guatemala City, those who could afford it adorned the fronts of their houses with lanterns. The poor who could not afford such lanterns began gathering their garbage and would burn all of the year’s rubbish in front of their houses. Over time it was formalized and in addition to individual piles of garbage, communities started to burn The Devil to clear the way for Mary’s feast. According to Guatemalan historians, the fire symbolizes the light of the Virgin Mary and her victory over the demon.
The idea is to burn all of the bad from the previous year and to start anew from the ashes. Burning the all that is old and not useful is not only meant to rid your home of garbage but symbolizes leaving behind everything that you don’t need anyomer in your life and rid your soul of bad and impure thoughts so that you can enter a new period of the celebration of the birth of Crist, which begins on December 8th with the celebration of la Virgen de Concepción and ends on February 2nd on the day of the Virgen of Candelaria.
Other Latin American countries share similar traditions. Colombia has Años Nuevos where life–sized dummies made to represent one’s sinful self of the previous year are doused in gasoline, and the old self brilliantly burns away to make way for the reformed.
A DYING TRADITION- A CHANGING TRADITION
The tradition has changed and I can see this as a reflection of what Guatemala is going through both as a country still struggling to have a government that is not filled with corrupt officials and as a modern city trying to keep up with the times. In years past in Ciudad Vieja, the first former capital of the country, a devil three stories tall was constructed and burned in the city square. But last year there where few fires and the devil in the city square was only 5 feet tall. In some towns where people still came out to burn trash some made their own devils and put faces of corrupt politicians on them before setting them on fire.
Throughout the city few fires where seen last year. According to Prensa Libre, the main newspaper in the country, this was due to the environmental campaign that has been launched by the many different environmental organizations. The government’s Ministerio del Medio Ambiente (Ministry of the Environment) has strongly campaigned against this tradition due to the dangers related to lighting up fires on the street and also because of the environmental impact. Many people would burn anything and everything that they didn’t want in their homes including tires, plastic and small appliances producing toxic gases. The Ministerio del Medio Ambiente has suggested breaking devil piñatas as a safer and environmentally friendly alternative to burning garbage and I believe breaking piñatas of corrupt politicians is also a great option.
In Antigua, where one of the biggest celebrations takes place, about two thousand people gathered in the main square to see a papier-mâché image of the devil burn. Last year both the celebration and the devil where smaller than in previous years.
Luke Maguire Armstrong’s post on www.perceptivetravel.com tells us of the wooden devil burned in Antigua Guatemala in 2008. “In front of Antigua Guatemala’s Devil is a message from him addressed to his “colleagues.” It is strikingly regretful. It begins, “I dreamt last night that everything was beautiful, that there was a Guatemala without violence, without kidnapping, corruptions, gangs, dictators, extortionists, poverty, and drug addicts.” After continuing to describe the happy, ideal society of his dreams, the devil’s message continues, “But when I awoke, I realized that everything was a sad, crude reality. This is why I live below.” He ends by saying that one reaps what he sows, and although he will burn at six, he also “wants the Guatemala that everyone wants.”
The message is decorated with comically colored, smiling devil cartoons. It is meant to be humorous, but The Devil’s dreams are also the dreams of millions of Guatemalans, who every year hope political promises will begin to shape a just society that no longer suffers from poverty and soaring rates of infant malnutrition. He may have wanted things to be better and different, but he is not forgiven for his failings.”
In 2009 the devil’s message warned the candidates running for mayor in Antigua that they where on his list and proceeded to tell them not to have monkey’s hands (not to steal) or he would have them burn like chicharrones, even including a website at the bottom in case someone had any questions. It’s so interesting to see how the Devil and this tradition has changed keeping up with the times and getting modernized.
Even though I remember the tradition of La Quema del Diablo fondly I realize now that it is dangerous and that it has quite a negative environmental impact. I am glad to see that the burning of trash and of the devil is being replaced by breaking devil piñatas. This is a safer and environmentally friendlier way of keeping this tradition alive and I hope that this tradition is kept alive in this form and does not die. I am looking forward to seeing how mis chapines (my Guatemalans) continue to modify it to modernize it and make it relevant to them today.
Special thanks to my guatemalan correspondent Monica Quirós for the images of the street vendors.